A Tale of Bodily Movements in the West Highland Way Race

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

I didn't really know how to do this without it becoming a sorrowful tale of woe so I decided not to. But Mrs Mac took the time to tell the story of the 2013 West Highland Way Race on her own blog and what a story it was. I couldn't hope to create something that contains so much emotion so you'll just have to put up with a sorrowful tale of woe. I was going to entitle it simply 'The West Highland Way Race' but after reading it through it was apparent that the tale is punctuated by faeces, urine and vomit, hence the title. 

This year, after seven years of mixed success and failure, with failure often accompanying almost zero training, the real boot in the backside to take things seriously came in April when Fi asked me to wear her race number. There's a couple of things you should know here: to a Londoner forenames are always reduced to one syllable, so Marmaduke becomes 'Duke', Muhammad becomes 'Mo' and Fiona becomes 'Fi.' The other thing you should realise is the three forenames used here are the names of fighters, Duke McKenzie, Muhammad Ali and Fiona Rennie. And it was the fight Fi was involved in that failed to allow her to run in her own number.

So with race day looming I meet a few race entrants and associated luminaries in a pub in Glasgow for a pre race social and some scoff. This was on Thursday. My intention was to sip something non alcoholic, to eat something easily digestible, and to go home having been a good boy. But I walk through the door and standing there, like some Highland Lazarus clutching a pint of foaming ale and sporting a wicked grin, is Uncle Duncan, founder of the West Highland Way Race.

'You can fuck off with that soft drink pish,' says Dunc when I request a fatboy Coke. 'I've come from Newtonmore on the bus so you're drinking with me til five when I have to go home.'

Never one to be swayed from my intended path, unless beer and Uncle Dunc are involved, my resolve crumbles like a paper hat in the rain and me and Dunc are drinking ale and exchanging war stories til five. Then it's home with Mrs Mac who tells me we're meeting her Ma and Pa in the boozer. More ale and a half past midnight stagger home fail to set any alarm bells ringing. Fuelled by Guinness and kebab I am a Jolly Green Giant, striding the earth with a pair of running shoes, and the beer I consumed that day was the finest sports supplement known to man.

Until I awake on race day feeling tired and hungover.

Fast forward a few hours and for the eighth year in a row I'm in the car park in Milngavie dressed like Max Wall. All around me are other Max Wall lookalikes mingling with people who are doing a fair impression of escaped POWs. Mrs Mac feeds me a shop bought sandwich, that if beer on Thursday was mistake número uno, this was mistake number two (or número dos if you wanna be pedantic).

You see, these sneaky, shop dwelling sandwich makers have a habit of secreting lactose in anything they create. I wonder whether, in such politically correct times, it's their way of torturing a racially and sexually indistinct section of society....the lactose intolerant. How they must clap their little hands with glee every time they catch someone out and send them desperately searching for a public toilet whilst holding in a fart that may or may not become a flock of sparrows.

Anyway, the race starts and Martin Antoninus Horatio Hooper and I (or Hoops for short), run out of Milngavie chasing 170 or so others. The early stages of the race come and go but at Beechtree Inn I feel the flock of sparrows begin to awaken in my belly. A mile or so later I tell Horatio that I'll catch him up and I find a quiet spot where I bare my arse to the world. An explosion of fecal matter and fluid are left decorating a famer's field and the only evidence that a human is responsible are the shit stained dock leaves that performed the function of bio degradeable bog paper.

We crack on.

Balmaha comes and goes and the only remark I have about that is the strange lack of midges. Or maybe they have an aversion to the recently suffered lactose intolerant. The following six miles are always a bit of a struggle for me. It's the point at which things start to get uncomfortable before slipping into second gear, so I'm ready for a bit of a battle. But while negotiating those cheeky little hills and horrible asphalt the injury that has plagued me for nearly two years begins to surface. At the bottom of my spine, near the top of my arse cheeks, a sharp pain starts to bite. By Rowardennan it's singing like Susan Boyle and causing me just as much suffering as listening to the pan faced bint.

Mrs Mac feeds me some brufen (for fuck sake don't tell Dr Chris) and I'm cracking on. I'm wearing Fi's race number and in my bum bag is her small hip flask of Glengoyne so withdrawal before toasting Dario in the Angel's Playground and giving our departed Italian/Scottish friend a wee nip is absolutely unthinkable.

Forward progress is made and somewhere before Beinglas Farm I see a blue baseball cap hanging on a tree. A while later I look back for Horatio and he's got the thing perched on his swede.

'What the fuck you wearing that for?' I ask.

'Because I need a shit and I've got no loo roll,' replies Horatio. 'This baseball cap is a gift from God and I'm making full use of it.'

The grunting and rustling that emanates from a bush would have any casual passer by believing that bears are no longer extinct in the Highlands. A moment later Horatio emerges sans baseball cap but with a satisfied look on his face.

We crack on.

On arrival at Auctertyre Farm the pain in my back has been a constant companion but the miles are being eaten up slowly. At this stage runners are required to be weighed, primarily to identify a possible gain which might signify over hydration, but also with a weight percentage that shouldn't drop below. I stand on the scales and record a drop of two kilos. No problem. Then, as the recorder is looking away, I remove my bumbag and another two kilos fall away. A four kilo drop from a starting weight of 73.6 kg is a bit hefty and I see my concern mirrored in the eyes of Mrs Mac.

We crack on.

Before we hit Bridge of Orchy the sleep deprivation and over indulgence of the Thursday begin to exact their toll. I'm feeling exhausted. The lactose intolerant movement, the weight loss, the dehydration, the pain in my back and constant diet of brufen may or may not be causes of failure, but lumped together they make for a difficult time at the very least. I tell Mrs Mac that a quick kip at Glen Coe will recharge my batteries for the final push and the thought of laying my head in her lap pushes me up Jelly Baby Hill to meet Murdo the Magnificent. Jelly Babies are indeed doled out to me and Horatio then Murdo requests that I turn around. I dutifully do so, after all, an instruction from someone so magnificent should never be ignored, and a boot is placed firmly in my backside.

'That's from your remote coach, Andy Dubois,' states MtM. 'He told me to kick your arse so you can assure him that I did exactly that.'

The long drag over Rannoch Moor is never something that fills me with joy. Having bollocks that look and feel like they've been sandpapered is no joy either, despite the liberal application of Vaseline. But if you ever want to give yourself someting that really smarts, try splashing piss on your chafed area. You'll laugh!!

Anyway, Ba Bridge seems to get further away every time I cross Rannoch Moor but reaching it this year accompanies another nail in the coffin of David William Waterman. Dry heaving becomes full on vomiting and the ten minutes planned in Mrs Mac's lap at Glen Coe becomes an age with my head in a bowl discharging everything I try to consume. The feeling of nausea remains despite the sickness and the time ticks by. Then I'm informed that the sweepers are outside and my already murky mood darkens further. Horatio has cracked on and I'm at the back. How did it come to this? 

I tell Mrs Mac there's only one thing for it. I tell her to look away and shove my hand down my throat and rid myself of absolutely anything and everything in my stomach in an attempt to dispel the nausea.

It works.

I get rigged in warm clobber and me and Dave Egan, my co runner from Tyndrum, crack on through Glen Coe to Altnafeadh. At this point, despite being accompanied by the sweepers, I'm feeling positive  and think that I can probably muster something to claw back some time and places. Then, after climbing the Devil's Staircase, my eyesight becomes blurred and the exhaustion returns with a vengeance. Ideas of lying down on the ground enter my head and the granite rocks look as inviting as soft, feather pillows. I stop and ask one of the sweepers how long til we reach Kinlochleven. She looks at me and says a couple of hours. I know exactly how far it is but hope beyond hope that maybe I'd got it wrong. I didn't realise it at the time, mainly cos I was seeing double and enjoying strange hallucinations, but the sweeper was Rhona Mitchell who performed her roll admirably. 

As we descend that long, miserable path to Kinlochleven the idea that I might miss the cut off becomes a reality. I pretty much resign myself to this until we come across George Reid and Karen Donoghue. I feel nothing short of embarrassment at being in this condition and at this place in the race but indulge myself and lie down on the ground. Immediately the pain in my back is relieved and despite beneath me being mud, rock and dirt I feel myself drifting away to a land of plump duvets, crisp clean sheets and softly sprung beds.

'Get up you slacker,' shouts Karen, and hauls me to my feet. We begin to move slowly until George starts encouraging me to move faster.

'If you get a move on you'll make it. It's shit or bust,' says George. 'You can do this.'

We arrive in the town and George encourages me to run. The movement achieved you'll find in no instruction manual or magazine on running. If a periodical called 'OAP Shuffler's World' existed you might possibly find it there among adverts for Zimmer frames and false teeth, but the movement, and George's endless cajoling, gets me into the med centre somewhere around the cut off but within a time that I am permitted to continue. Mrs Mac is in tears and big George has something in his eye.

I sip some Coke and ice and exchange banter with Pete Duggan, resident of Kinlochleven, player of pipes, and Ramsay Round finisher. Inside me I feel a bit of a warm glow. 'It's in the bag, despite all the setbacks I can do this for Fi, ' I say to myself.

A few minutes later Dave Egan and I are on our way. I know the rest of the route well and think that a steady push up the hill should get me to Lairig Mhor in time to run the flats to Lundavra and maybe make some places up. The positivity lasts until we plateau then it was as if everything crashed. I could hear voices in my head....not malevolent stuff of horror films that might see me throw Dave Egan off the side of the hill, but nonesnse banter about cakes and things. I can see Facebook status updates written on rocks and my body has started to uncontrollably spasm. I attempt to move forward but my body lurches sideward toward the edge of the hill.

'What are you doing over there? Get away from the edge!' Shouts Egan.

Then, as if things could get no worse, the heavens open and Dave and I are treated to a cold shower that soaks through my clothes and into my bones. I start shivering.

It was then I knew I'd had enough. I had about five hours to cover 13 miles and knew I'd never make it. If I heard this tale in a pub in London, I'm pretty sure I'd scoff at it and say 'I could crawl 13 miles in five hours.' Well, that talk is cheap and I don't think I could have crawled anywhere.

'I don't think I'm gonna make it, Dave,' I say to my co runner. 'What do you think?'

'I think you were an idiot for getting out of the van at Glen Coe,' he replies.
I pull my plastic wrapped mobile phone from my race sack for the first time. My home and work life are complicated. I have four children of either adult or teenage years all of whom can be colourfully challenging. I work with 15 men who, at times, make my children seem statesman like. I told Mrs Mac that their problems would remain theirs until I finish the race and only in an emergency would my phone be switched on.

I switch it on.

'Can you come back to Kinlochleven for me babe, I'm done,' I speak into the phone.

'Are you sure?' asks Mrs Mac?

'Yes. Sorry,' I answer.

As I descend the hill back to Kinlochleven the West Highland Way Race retains one last kick in the bollocks for me. I'm about half way down the hill and I can see our rented Mercedes van parked in the distance on what appears to be a track. I can see the distinct silver/grey paintwork and blacked out windows. Mrs Mac has obviously found a route up here....one I don't know exists. But I can't see her sitting in the driver's seat....she must be in the back preparing for my arrival. As I get nearer I'm slightly bothered by the idea of this track up the mountain. I've been here many times and never noticed it, but there in front of me is our van.

I must have been within 20 feet or so of the van when it became the rock that it always was. Mrs Mac was in Kinlochleven and I was right to be bothered by the (non existent) track up the mountain. Hallucinations are a well documented phenomenon in this race, and I filled my boots.

On arrival at the real van Mrs Mac peels my wet and stinking clothes off and puts me into a sleeping bag. Then I experience what it must be like to be dead. The last time I slept like that I had received a general anaesthetic before some surgeon repaired a torn diaphragm and sewed up the top of my stomach.

Some time later I was woken to be told Horatio was about to finish. Despite me being cocooned naked  in a sleeping bag from where I never wanted to emerge, I pulled on some clean clothes to see my mate reach the leisure centre. Martin is a lump, built for running he ain't. Last year he battled against injury to make it to Kinlochleven before withdrawing, unable to lift his feet from the ground. It was a joy seeing him finish this year. He had trained well, shifted some weight and had kept to his game plan throughout the race. Top man.

As for me, at the moment, I'm saying my love affair with the West Highland Way Race is over. I have three finishes and a clutch of DNFs that, quite frankly, I probably deserve for a failure to prepare. But this year, after training solidly and putting everything into it, the West Highland Way proved she can be a cruel mistress. 

As Uncle Dunc told me, anything can happen in that race.

And it did.


Ali said...

I am in bits. You know how much this race means to me and yet I've had to walk away from it.

Everyone will tell you not to give up and give it another go but I think you've given it everything and it's time for you to walk away too.

I don't read any of the WHW blogs any more but I love you too much not to read and comment.

There is life after the race and you will always have those 3 precious goblets (assuming clumsy daughters don't break 'em!!)

Ali xxx

Subversive Runner said...

I think you're spot on, Ali.xxx

Lee Maclean said...

I disagree. 2015 will be the last time. With everything in the right order. Then, we can take up sky diving xox

Davie said...

I think Dave Egan had it in one. I knew before I left home on Sunday morning that you had left KLL but as I was driving didn't know you had retired. When Lee told me I was gutted. I could have stayed in bed!
But getting as far as you did was a great effort and you should be proud of that. Despondency is natural, as you may remember I was despondent on'09 - and I finished.
BTW tell Dave Ross there were no midges at Balmaha. The big blouse was netted up like a bee keeper.

Fiona Rennie said...

I can't find the words to express the emotion that your blog (and Lee's) have evoked, so I'm not going to say anything, actions speak louder than words. I'm going for a run, and it's got your name on it. Fi xxx

Tim said...

Very moving & honest report Dave. You undoubtably gave it your all on the day. It can't have been easy with folk like myself reminding you about the responsibility of carrying Fiona's number. Of course I wanted you to finish as much as anybody and hoped my comment would motivate you but I can see that it probably only burdened you with more guilt and I apologise for that.

Regarding the race, never say never but I think it's good to step back sometimes like I've done this year and do other things. It's all too easy to get sucked into doing the WHW "because that's what I do" without stopping to think *why* you're doing it.

You've taken a battering physically and mentally and you need time to heal. Only think about doing the WHW again if or when (and I hope "when") you really *want* to do it, not just because you've entered it for the last X number of years.

I reckon that there's a marshalling job at Lundavra with your name on it next year. ;-)

Julie said...

Ah Dave, you make me laugh, retch, flinch and cry all at the same time. Again. I'm very glad I know you.

And I think Tim's suggestion is spot on - Pirate Party at Lundavra in 2014. Might have a few runners struggle to make it past though...! xx

Dale Jamieson said...

your as true as they come big man and you've done Fi well proud.

There's a hell of a lot we can learn from your fighting spirit.

What's Mrs Mac on about? 2015? Sounds like a plan, ha!

Unknown said...

This is a sweet blog! I love reading about your adventures. Keep running strong! :)

David | Absorbents

Andy Cole said...

Well done Dave. You'll be back. Maybe 2015, maybe not 'til later, you've plenty of time (I hadn't heard of the West Highland Way until I was 58), just stay around - you're part of the deal, we need you.

Flip said...

Thanks Dave,I feel so much better now knowing someone else felt worse than i did in the race ! Sorry about the bad luck but we all know you'll be back and run a stormer. Brilliant blog as always.

Bali Hotels said...

Great post

Karl said...


Lee Maclean said...

More tears xox